My brush with death on the wild Atlantic

Andrew Preece survives a near disaster as the ocean shows its power
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The Independent Online

We had to wait an agonising two months before we could start our attempt to break the trans-Atlantic sailing record, and our attempt was to last a mere six hours. It was a short trip, but, boy, was it eventful.

We had to wait an agonising two months before we could start our attempt to break the trans-Atlantic sailing record, and our attempt was to last a mere six hours. It was a short trip, but, boy, was it eventful.

The weather system that the skipper, Steve Fossett, and the rest of the crew of the 105ft catamaran PlayStation had been waiting for finally materialised early last week, and within hours the 10-man crew, including myself, were flying into New York.

Our weather team had predicted that the winds would increase during Thursday morning and by the evening would be pushing 25-30 knots from the west and south-west. They suggested a 13:00 local time departure from the entrance to New York Harbour to begin a breakneck passage that would have us crossing the finishing line off The Lizard in Cornwall less than six days, 13 hours and four minutes later.

Barely two hours after the start we were jetting up the coast of Long Island with the speedo hitting 30 knots and more. The watch captain Ben Wright was on the helm discussing a reef with his fellow watch captain Brian Thompson, when we suddenly had our first brush with disaster. We were belted by a spiky 35-knot gust, the bows went down, the rudders reared out of the water and the boat slewed round and came desperately close to capsizing. Thompson was flung forward - now steeply downhill - but saved himself by grabbing the boat's netting as he went.

This drama was but a prelude to the real action after dark. We were ready for the wind to climb, but we hadn't counted on just how strong it would get. As night fell the crewman in charge of the mainsheet quick-release system had the key role. The wind was up into the 40 knot region and at times PlayStation was hurtling along at 35 knots plus. The helmsman had to steer by feel alone, often having swiftly to bear away to take the power off as the pressure really came on. The mainsheet release man was at his station in case more drastic action was needed.

The seas were building and by now we had two reefs in the mainsail and were thinking about a third. We were a split second late calling the crew on deck to make the change. With seven of the crew at the base of the mast frantically spinning handles as the reefing mechanism inched agonisingly slowly around, we were hit by a gust of 62 knots. Gino Morelli, the boat's designer, was steering. We were already pointing dead downwind and had completely released the mainsheet. But the pressure was building, and the rigging was straining to burst. We had no further options.

The boat was surrounded in a cloud of spray and never has a 105ft beast felt so small and fragile. The bows went down again, and again the rudders came out of the water at the stern. We just hung there wondering if the giant catamaran was going to break, pitch pole or rise up and shake off the pressure as Gino struggled to keep the boat tracking downwind.

The pressure was finally released when the large-roached mainsail half gybed and broke a bunch of battens. The wind subsided to a casual 50 knots and we regained control. It took an hour to get the damaged mainsail down with shards of splintered batten poking out of it. Even after that we were still doing 14 knots with no sail up.

But that was the end of our trans-Atlantic record attempt. The mainsail was trashed and we were very lucky not to have been swimming in the freezing North Atlantic in winter. Six hours into the record attempt and we had witnessed a vivid and forceful reminder of the might of the ocean.

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